So, just a couple of days after teaching a lesson (to some other Christians in a Sunday School class) about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:38-48), I read something that made me angry with someone else. My immediate response was to think of a scathing reply, or to relish my superiority as I considered how inferior the other person was (in my not-so-humble opinion). Then, like Peter hearing the rooster crow (Luke 22:60-62), I realized how difficult it was for me to genuinely love others who bothered me.
Let’s take a look at part of this passage, from the teachings of Jesus that we sometimes call the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:43-45 NIV
It is way too easy to immediately go into defense mode (“shields up!”) when we encounter someone who is promoting falsehood, acting unwisely, or just being a pest (on purpose). Conversations seem to immediately turn to insults, when a story is told about someone who opposes the beliefs, heritage, or even sports team preferences of the group. Entire talk show episodes (and online conversations) revolve around pillorying others whose viewpoint differs from those of the speakers.
Jesus makes a pretty clear statement: Our response to our enemies should be to love them. That love isn’t reserved for sycophants or yes-men who agree with us (even if we are pretty sure that they are right!). Instead, we are formally commanded to show love to those who irritate, oppose, and even persecute us.
I’m not sure if I will ever get to the point where I read something that bothers me, and my first thought is to pray for that person. I don’t know if I can automatically look for ways to show kindness to those who are actively abusing me, like Jesus asked for the forgiveness of those who tortured and killed Him. There are others who can show love like that as a reflex, and I have high esteem for them. I’m just not there – at least, not yet.
When we react in unrighteous anger, passively-aggressive indifference, or insulting marginalization, we are really overstepping our role, though. God makes it clear that this is His responsibility.
It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.”
The Lord will vindicate his people
and relent concerning his servants
when he sees their strength is gone
and no one is left, slave or free.
Deuteronomy 32:35-36 NIV
Although God does sometimes carry out his vengeance through other parties, I don’t think that they are to take a perverse joy in executing it. I’m pretty sure that being nice (on the surface) to someone who is obnoxious, while secretly thinking – behind our smile – that God will give them their due, isn’t the right behavior, either. We are all sinners, and we all deserve punishment, so who are we to accept God’s mercy and grace without extending it to others? We would all do well to remember how Jesus instructed the one without sin to cast the first stone (see John 8:7).
So, if our first reaction to being affronted is how to get revenge (in its various forms, both overt and covert; whether in our heart, our words, or our actions), we should probably remember our place. Only God has the right to take vengeance, because only God is fully righteous, all-knowing, and perfectly just. We simply aren’t qualified to decide who deserves to be punished by God, especially not when driven by our revenge-seeking sinful nature.
Love our enemies, indeed! With God’s help, may we stand ready to give out that love, even when we want to do the opposite.